Hurry Up and Wait…the rest of the story…pandemic passages

We crept into Boca Chica, Panama, at low tide, with a few feet to spare under the keel.  Compared with our last visit, it felt like a ghost town.  Gone were the cruising boats anchored amidst the tourist and fishing pangas zooming by.  This time the anchorage was nearly empty, and the only sounds were the howler monkeys on shore.  It felt a little eerie!

We anchored as far from the channel and it’s whirling tidal currents as possible, not wanting to risk going under the 60’ high power lines with our 57′ vertical clearance.  This is the same harbor where we hooked a huge waterlogged tree on our anchor, so we carefully avoided that area.  Once anchored we contacted another cruiser who had anchored past the electrical wires to get the scoop on what was happening in Boca Chica (nothing), and what was the latest on getting an exit Zarpe (no luck).  So, it was time to hunker down and wait once again.

Propane Procurement Problems

Needing propane and diesel, we arranged for a water taxi to take our tanks to a land taxi driver who would drive them to town and bring them all back full.  It sounded like such an easy process!  Who am I kidding; this is Panama, and worse it’s Panama under a pandemic.  In addition to restricting travel by the last number on your ID, Panama has also stipulated gender restrictions for an hour of shopping and a strict curfew requiring everyone to be home by 5pm each day, with no travel at all on Sundays.

On the first day of the great propane procurement plan, it was a day designated for female travel only.  Since it was ladies’ day, our male taxi driver was stopped at a roadblock and forced to turn around.  Day two, he tried again, and got as far as the propane refueling station.  Unfortunately, the worker there said our tanks were full and he couldn’t fill them.  Huh?  So that took another day to say just open the valve and release whatever pressure is there and refill them because we knew they were empty!  Day three, lady’s day again, no men can travel.  Day four, voila, the land taxi can travel, the workers somehow filled them, and the water taxi brought them back at sunset on a slack tide.  We ended up paying for each taxi attempt, and an extra “service charge”, but hey, it was nice to be able to cook again and have morning coffee!  Ah, hurry up and wait, and wait…

Zany Zarpe Zoo

Now that we had fuel and propane it was time to turn our focus back to that elusive endangered species; the Exit Zarpe.  We soon found ourselves in a giant catch-22 of total insanity.  There are three officials that are normally required to enter and clear a country; Immigration, Maritime Authority (AMP), and Customs.  In addition to those, there is now a Ministry of Health (MINSA) requirement because of Covid-19.

Our problems stemmed from the fact that MINSA wouldn’t issue us a health clearance because we were leaving the country.  If we’d been entering the country, a MINSA official would have come to us and cleared us in.  However, since MINSA wouldn’t give us the health clearance, Immigration wouldn’t stamp our passports, and without the passport stamps, AMP wouldn’t issue the Zarpe, and without the Zarpe, Customs wasn’t going to clear us.  Soooooo, very VERY long story short, we went around and around with numerous officials, phone calls, emails, embassy calls, etc., etc. with no luck.  Even though the MINSA clearance was not required to exit, La Hefa at the Immigration office was not going to budge.

After two weeks of this insanity we finally hired an agent to do the calling and arranging for us.  As Carlos said; “if you can’t go straight, go crooked”.  Funny, it seems that money talks!  Immediately the agent had a plan; he arranged for us to go to a MINSA health examination clinic and get the health clearance ourselves, since the official refused to come to us.  Easy peasy, right?  We got up at dawn, got a water taxi to take us to a land taxi, drove on back roads in the land taxi to avoid getting stopped by the police since we weren’t allowed out, and finally arrived at the health clinic.  After much talking back and forth, and more phone calls, we were told by the workers at the clinic they couldn’t give us a clearance but that if we said we’d never been there, and promised not to leave our boats again, they would email a clearance to us!  Ah, the logic of Panamanian government authorities.

We reversed our trip, avoiding the police on the road, hiding out in the water taxi when the Navy got too close, feeling a bit let down and wondering if we’d ever see the health inspection email.  Back on Happy Dance, we resumed waiting.  But low and behold, after a few hours we had an email with our health certificate!  We sent it on to our agent, but since the other offices were now closed, he would go in the morning.  Okay, what’s another day?  We’re getting good at this waiting stuff!

The next day our agent started at 7am on his way to David and made it to Immigration without a problem.  Next stop was the Maritime Authority in Pedrigal, and he soon had our Zarpe in hand!  The final stop was at Customs for another stamp and of course another fee.  Sometime around 1pm the agent was finally on his way back, and then of course he was stopped by the police at a roadblock.  We’re not really sure what went on or why it took so long, but he was able to get through the road block and arrived back to the marina at around 4pm.  We emailed the agent his $600 dollar fee and the long insane wait for the elusive Exit Zarpe was nearly over.

As soon as Carlos delivered the papers to our friend Nora, who was anchored beyond those low hanging wires I mentioned, she decided to make an attempt to get past the wires so that she’d be ready to depart in the morning.  It was nearly low tide, but the tide was still coming in against her at a fast clip, making it difficult to maintain speed and steerage and she was in danger of going aground.  Carlos tried to help her maintain steerage by tying a line to her bow to steer her bow into the channel with his panga.  Well, another long story short, the current won the battle and both boats were in trouble.  The panga got swamped, the line was under the sailboat, the sailboat had to turn around, and they both headed back to where they started with a bit more stress added to the day.

This of course delayed us as well, because now Carlos couldn’t bring us our papers because his panga was full of water, his phone was drowned, his engine was full of saltwater, and he was not happy.  Eventually he got sorted out, dried out, and low and behold, here comes Carlos zooming to Happy Dance with our all-important papers.  Yeehaw!  We did a drive by grab, exchanging paperwork and passports for a bag of trash (poetic?), and we pulled anchor.  We had just enough time to leave Boca Chica and head out to a favorite anchorage before maritime sunset.

It was lovely dropping anchor (in the dark) in an empty anchorage off Isla Parida.  No more cell calls, text messages, or bad news, just parrots squawking in the trees and waves crashing on the rocks.  A nicer venue for that wonderful activity of waiting.

Lightning Litany

We spent two nights relaxing and swimming in beautiful Parida while we waited for our friend Nora to make her way under the wires at low tide and out of Boca Chica.  Along the way she realized that her auto pilot wasn’t working, and that was a big problem considering that she was single handing and planning a long passage straight to Mexico!  Thankfully she is very savvy and took the auto pilot apart, to determine the problem.  With some help from Carlos they soon had the unit back together and working.

Once we heard via VHF that she would soon be on her way we agreed to have her meet up with us in the next anchorage called Punta Balsa.  This is the last stop on the northwest corner of Panama before heading into Costa Rica.  Since the border in Costa Rica was closed, we planned on making an overnight run from there and trying to anchor in a secluded anchorage that hopefully the Navy or the GuardaCostas wouldn’t be guarding.

Waking at dawn to the sound of thunder isn’t my idea of a good time.  The dark clouds were massed over the point to the northwest, and a procession of thunderheads stretched out to sea in a threatening line that we would have to cross.  As we pulled anchor, I watched the bolts of lightning hit and counted off the seconds until I heard the thunder.  Miles away, but still too close!  The anchor was finally stowed, and we peeled out of the anchorage trying to leave the lightning show behind us.

As daylight brightened, the clouds dispersed a bit leaving a lumpy sea for us to maneuver around the point.  Then it was time for sails out, engine off and a lovely sail up the coast along the rainforest toward the huge Gulf of Nicoya.

All was well until about midnight.  Marty was on watch and the radar started showing bands of thunderclouds off to starboard toward land.  Unfortunately, they were also ahead of us, and we were soon engulfed in lightning and rain.  (Here’s a story about why lightning scares me so much!!) At this point he could see Nora’s boat on the radar but as he watched, another band of clouds slowly moved around in a hook and absorbed her.  She called in reporting driving rain, 30 knot winds, and lightning.

Pretty soon we were both swallowed up in the clouds that had now connected to form a huge blob on the radar with nowhere to run.  Marty decided that heading toward the mainland to get out of the storm was the best idea and shortest distance through the storm.  We got Nora’s position via VHF and recorded it on our chart before making a turn so that we didn’t run her over since we couldn’t see anything but storm clouds on the radar and visibility was zero due to the rain.

After a long night at the helm, hanging on in gusty winds, driving rain, and scary lightning, Marty took a much needed break (my hero!!) and I stood watch impatiently waiting for sunrise.  We had altered course and we were now heading toward a tiny anchorage called Bahia Dominicalito. Our charting software described this as a decent anchorage with good holding.  We arrived to find a huge swell crashing over the protective reef; time to move on!

Our next stop was in the southern anchorage of Manual Antonio National Park, a protected area of rugged rainforest, white-sand beaches and coral reefs.  We made our way through the rocks to a slightly protected spot where we were soon anchored.  Nap time!

GuardaCostas Gratitude

We were awoken a few hours later to the sound of large engines outside the boat.  As we crawled blurry eyed and stumble footed out the companionway, we were greeted by a Costa Rican GuardaCostas boat trying valiantly to maintain position next to us in what was now a very lumpy sea.  While we’d slept it appeared that the storm we’d been running from overnight had now arrived on shore and we were in the middle of it.  Our calm anchorage had turned into a nasty lee shore.

We handed our papers and passports across to the GuardaCostas and were told to wait while they checked them out. They asked lots of questions about our health and our intentions.  Since Costa Rica borders were closed, we were anchored illegally, so we hoped that they didn’t boot us out and would let us stay until the following morning.

While they were making phone calls and trying to decide what to do with us, the rain started pouring down and the wind picked up.  Their boat was open, so they were soon drenched, as were we, because they ordered us to pull anchor and follow them.  Huh? We had no idea where we were going or why we needed to follow them, but since they had our passports, we decided it was probably a good idea!

We have a 75hp engine on Happy Dance, but even so, getting out of that anchorage was a challenge.  We had to drive straight into the heavy swell because of the rocks guarding the entrance.  At times we were being launched off the waves into troughs that would slow Happy Dance down to just a couple knots.  Nora was behind us and with her smaller engine her boat was having trouble at times maintaining steerage.  It took a good half an hour to get past the rocks where we could finally alter course to take the waves at a better angle.  It was still pouring rain though, so that we could hardly see the GuardaCostas boat in the distance.  Since we still didn’t know where they were taking us, we didn’t want to lose sight of them as we navigated around the rocks and reefs in the area.

Pretty soon we realized the Coasties were leading us to the northern anchorage of Manual Antonio Park, which was a much more protected spot than where we’d been.  They spent more time making phone calls and asking questions, but pretty soon they came over and told us we were allowed to stay, but we were not allowed to go ashore.  Perfect!  Muchas gracias!!!

Needless to say, we slept well that night.

The next day we made a short hop to Bahia Ballena, one of our favorite spots.  Nora decided to do another overnighter to put the thunderstorms brewing over the rainforest on the Nicoya Peninsula behind her, so we bid her adios knowing we’d catch up with her further north.  The clouds started hovering over us at sunset, but nothing much developed, and we had an easy night along with another easy day of travel around the peninsula up to Bahia Samara.

Even though the day had been sunny and clear, and we’d enjoyed a gentle sail on smooth seas watching hundreds of mobula rays put on a leaping show, everything changed about 30 minutes after we set anchor in Samara.  The clouds stacked up over the bay and pretty soon the rain came down.  Three free boat washes in as many days…Happy Dance was so clean!!

Dripping Dripless

While in Samara Marty was finally able to determine why our bilge pump had been running.  Happy Dance is a very dry boat, so when the bilge pump goes off, we both sit up and take notice.  We’d thought it was simply the refrigerator draining from the high humidity, but Marty did more digging and discovered that the dripless prop shaft seal was dripping at a pretty steady rate.  Salt water inside is not my idea of fun.  Rutro!!!

Thankfully we had internet in Samara so we could do some research and ask cruiser friends for information.  Pretty soon we’d learned that our dripping dripless would need to be replaced, which means that we’d have to pull out the propeller shaft in order to put on the new shaft seal.  Obviously it’s not a task that can be done in the water.  The next haul out open to us (since we couldn’t enter Costa Rica) was in Chiapas, Mexico, still 400 miles away.

Marty was able to slow the leak with grease and then wrapped it while we were at anchor.  We decided to wait in Samara a couple days while another boating friend caught up to us so that we’d at least have a boat within hailing distance in case the leak got worse while we were under way.  Pretty soon we were on our way again with planned overnight stops in Playa Conchal, Costa Rica (where we’d seen the yellow-bellied sea snakes on our way down the coast), and Pie de Gigante, Nicaragua.  Thankfully the grease that Marty had put in the seal seemed to be keeping the sea water out even while we were under way – yay!

We’d hoped to put into one more anchorage at El Transito, so that we didn’t have to do another night passage, but with the extreme swells the coast had been having, the anchorage was untenable.  We couldn’t even get close to the beach because of the huge rollers running straight in.  We altered course yet again, put Happy Dance into a slow motor into the wind while we both went on deck to add more fuel to the tanks from the jerry jugs on deck.  Once the fueling was done we set a course for Puesta del Sol, and motored all night at a butt numbingly slow 4 knots so that we’d arrive at dawn.

Nicaraguan Negation

The entrance to Marina Puesta del Sol is via a shallow estuary channel that ebbs and floods with the tide.  Our intent had been to arrive at high slack tide which on this day was at 4pm.  So of course, we arrived at dawn, 10 hours early, as the tide was still going out, with about two hours until low slack.  When you have a large swell entering a shallow channel against an outgoing tidal current, it’s generally a good time to anchor and wait it out.

Hmmm…We decided to give it a try.

Our first attempt was a little dicey as we followed the waypoints that were listed on the marina information in Navionics.  When suddenly we were doing 10 knots surfing down a large swell, we quickly did a 180 back to deeper water to rethink our approach.  We decided the better angle would be a straight in approach with a quick 90 degree turn into the entrance closer to the small peninsula that guarded the channel.

Our second attempt was an easier approach to the entrance, but it was still a bit “lively”.  The outgoing tide and resulting chop slowed us down to around three knots for a short section along the beach.  With breakers on one side and rocks on the other, there wasn’t much of a choice but to keep upping the RPMs until we were through into the estuary.  Once past the entrance we could relax and simply keep an eye on the depth sounder and the channel markers.

Soon we were tied to a dock, and trying to get our land legs under us.  It felt wonderful after 32 days of being on Happy Dance!  We recognized some of the boats in the marina, so it was nice to get caught up and to get Happy Dance ready to stay put for a while.  With the tarp over the boom to make shade, the chairs in the cockpit, and the boat tied up we were ready for some relaxation!

The health inspector came out and announced us clear of Covid19 (are you sick? No..).  All was great, we’re relaxing, waiting for the Immigration official and the Port Captain.  But then, the Navy arrived…is that the theme from Jaws I hear?

It seemed that the previous week the Nicaraguan border was closed unofficially, but they forgot to tell everyone until the day we arrived.  So, we were the last boats into the marina, and now they were saying we had to leave; Nicaragua was closed.  This was all taking place after we’d spent weeks talking with the marina, forwarding our documents and keeping them informed on our arrival date.

Robert, the owner of Puesta del Sol Marina, is well connected and he got on the phone to call the President of Nicaragua, and the Head of the Navy, and we were given a short reprieve. They had us move off the main dock to another empty dock, where we were not allowed to leave the boat.  A Navy boat was stationed right next to us to make sure we stayed on board.  We were told that the next day another health inspector would come give us a more thorough exam to see if we were healthy.  If we passed that health inspection, then the rest of the process would begin again.

The next day, as we were sitting onboard filling out the papers to check into the marina and waiting for the health inspector, we were told that the marina and the Navy would let us stay for a few days illegally; as if we weren’t in the country.  But then, that familiar theme music started up again…and the manager received a phone call from Immigration saying that we would not be allowed to stay.  Robert got on the phone again trying to use his influence to get another reprieve, but Immigration was a tougher nut to crack and they wouldn’t budge. We were told we had to leave, and we had to leave that day regardless of conditions at sea.

At high tide that afternoon we refueled and headed back out the channel, with a three-day passage in front of us.  The forecast showed the possibility of some thunderstorms, with light winds on our nose and a long low swell.  A stiff wind was blowing onshore as we headed straight out past the breakers and the reefs, but we were soon able to set a course with a reefed main and jib out and sailed until sunset in a lumpy sea doing only about 4.5 knots.  When you’re looking at a 340-mile run, 4.5 knots feels very slow!

The wind eventually died down as darkness crept in and the rest of the trip was an easy one.  We enjoyed lots of dolphin encounters, turtles and burtles, rays jumping, and a red sun peeking through the hazy skies at sunrise and sunset.  The seas smoothed out, the thunder bumpers stayed far away, we were able to increase speed, and we arrived at the entrance to Chiapas, Mexico at dawn on the third morning.  We gently rode the swell past the breakwater, and maneuvered down the channel into the flat water of the marina.  Listening to the morning bird calls all around, we backed into a slip, tied up, and heaved a huge sigh of relief.

One of the marina guys came over to take our temperature and advise that the Port Captain and the Navy would be by shortly.  We passed those two rounds of paperwork, then it was time for coffee and oh, maybe just a short nap…ha!  Since it was Sunday, we couldn’t check in to the country until the next day anyway.

The quick story of a long day of driving, waiting, driving, waiting, is that on Monday, Marty did the paperwork cha cha with four different officials, plenty of stamps on documents, and a great sprinkling of pesos.  When he got back to Happy Dance, we did the happy dance, toasted our happy life with a Negra Modelo, and celebrated our official entry into Mexico!!!!

Twelve hundred miles, thirty six boat days, sixteen bolts of lightning, four closed borders, and a dripping dripless shaft seal (sing along!!)….yep, this living the dream can be quite an adventure!!

 

Hurry Up and Wait…pandemic passages

But I get ahead of myself again.  I intended to tell you how we arrived here, so off we go!

We’ve just reached another milestone for Happy Dance and her crew!  Seven years ago, we left the dock in Anacortes, Washington, setting sail for adventure and what an adventure it’s been.  Our first stop on that momentous Bon Voyage day was a favorite spot of ours on Lopez Island.  Today we’re floating at anchor in a new favorite called Bahia de Rosario, surrounded by black sand beaches, lush green forests, pelicans in trees, squawking parrots, and howler monkeys.  What a difference over fifteen thousand miles makes!

Along the way we’ve learned that sometimes leaving the dock is a simple affair, and sometimes it’s a bit more complicated, due to rough weather, opposing tides, mechanical problems, or just not being ready.  The thing that held us to the dock in Panama for two very expensive weeks was a new thing to all of us called the Coronavirus Pandemic.  Obviously, we’re not the only ones negatively impacted by the uncertainty of the world these days, and I hardly feel like our inconveniences are worthy of mention given what people are facing around the world.  Our problems have stemmed from border closings, travel restrictions, services being unavailable, and basically just learning to wait. 

It seems as though our timing has been off since our arrival into Panama.  We had scheduled our arrival based on information from one marina employee stating the tide would be high enough to launch Happy Dance, however it was a different story when we were standing in front of the person who would actually be doing the launching!  Long story short, we were not able to launch as planned and headed off to find a hotel while we waited for higher tides.

Four days later we launched with a couple of feet to spare, thankfully avoiding bouncing on the bottom or hitting any of the other obstacles in this less than perfect marina!  Once at the dock we worked through “the List” of chores pretty fast, then had to wait, and wait, for the daily March winds to calm a bit to be able to hoist the sails.

Happy Dance waiting to be launched

Finally, we were ready to go.  Wrong!  The virus had arrived in Panama and Panama had closed the doors.  The Panamanian President decreed that marine officials would not be in their offices ready to stamp papers and give us the magic exit Zarpe which we need to be able to leave the country.  The news continued to deteriorate as it did all over the world, with stores closing, buses and taxis not running, roadblocks between us and the Port offices, and a curfew imposed from 5pm to 5am.  For us it just meant that we had hurried up and now must wait, wait, wait, to see what decree came next and when we might be able to leave Panama.  Three weeks later we’re still waiting.

We heard some good news that we at least we wouldn’t be stopped from leaving the marina, so we motored Happy Dance to the fuel dock before 8am to be ready when they opened, and they finally showed up at 11am to fuel us.  Okay, NOW we’re off!  As we left the marina at noon it was a bit nerve wracking to see one of our fellow cruisers anchored just outside the break water being buffeted by the wind and waves because the marina wasn’t letting any boats enter.  In other words, once we crossed the breakwater, we were outcasts.  No worries…right?  Gulp!

Well, nothing ventured nothing gained.  The afternoon winds had kicked up, so we rolled out the genoa and had a lovely lively sail heading due south out of Panama Bay.  The wind was strong enough that even with a double reefed genoa out, we were making tracks.  Needless to say, it was fantastic after having been in the marina for so long, being blown against the dock and bouncing on the surge, to finally put a use to all that wind!  What a great sail.  Happy Dance and her crew were all doing the happy dance!

It seemed strange to be sailing south to get north, but we were heading toward Punta Malo, with the sun setting to starboard.  Thankfully Punta Malo wasn’t malo (bad) as we rounded the notoriously rough point, and we were then able to change course to due West.  As the daily winds subsided with a moonless dark night coming on, we furled the sails and motored to first light enjoying the phosphorus light show in our wake.  In the morning we hoisted the sails again making plenty of sail changes in the offshore gusty winds, completing the 150-mile passage in 24 hours.  We arrived at Ensenada de Naranjo on Isla Cebaco mid-day the next day, and as we rounded the point into the bay we were greeted by the wonderful fragrance of flowering trees.   

It had been a dark bumpy night for the first overnight transit, and we were both tired but happy when the anchor dropped.  We spent the next couple days cleaning up from a rough passage (one duck down), swimming off the boat, enjoying the gentle roll of the boat on the incoming swells, and listening to the rollers crash onshore.   It felt awesome to be away from the dock and get reacquainted with the feeling of the boat under us.  There’s nothing like sleeping at anchor; we love it.

Our next stop was at an anchorage tucked between the mainland and Isla Catalina, where we spent two days catching up on the news (mostly bad) via a cell tower that we know can be reached there.  It’s not the best anchorage because the swells break over the reefs at high tide making it a bit rough, but it calmed down at night, so we still enjoyed peaceful sleep. 

It’s now been over a week since we left the dock and we’re feeling like boat people again!  Happy Dance is anchored in a lovely spot called Bahia de Rosario, on the mainland of Panama about midway between the Choiba and Seca Island groups, with light winds and tides so that she is barely pulling on her anchor chain.  We hadn’t stayed here before and we’re so glad that we did this time.  It’s a fairly well protected anchorage, with small islands and a reef that stops the swell from entering the bay.  There hasn’t been much wind to speak of during the week we’ve been here, so the variable onshore and offshore breezes have been just enough to keep us cool and give us a 360-degree view of the bay.

There are no houses or people nearby, so other than the few fishing cayucas who paddle in from the next bay over where there’s a little fishing village perched on the sand, we haven’t seen anyone.  It’s about a two-mile paddle to get here, so the fishermen arrive before the sun on the incoming tide and point their boats home when the sun is high and the tide is going out. 

Sunrise and sunset are heralded by the sound of howler monkeys calling to each other from deep in the lush forest.  We read somewhere that howler monkeys are one of the loudest animals on the planet and if you’ve ever heard them it’s not hard to think they’re probably the loudest!  We haven’t been able to see their black bodies in the depths of the shadows, but we can see their passage as the tree branches dip under their weight.  It’s a riot to listen to them, along with the many bird calls and fish kerfluffles…pretty awesome.

One side of this idyllic bay where we’re anchored is ringed with plumeria trees, mostly bare branches with bunches of fragrant white plumeria blossoms at the end of each.  The trees are very accommodating for the flocks of white ibis who unknowingly camouflage themselves among the white flowers.  There are also a few great egrets who come home to roost every night, along with the silly pelicans who enjoy making me laugh.  In the morning the ibis all take flight at once leaving one to think that all the clusters of flowers were suddenly blown away.

This week of solitude and serenity has been a welcome gift for two sailors who prefer quiet anchorages over busy marinas.  Especially after all the bad news and frustrations out in the big world it’s been unbelievable to simple sit on the boat and listen to the sounds of nature and the sea all around us.  We’ve been swimming, paddling, beach walking, and just enjoying this beautiful spot.  We’ll soon go face the news again, since we need to find out if Panama will ever give us our magic Exit Zarpe and let us go on about our travels.  No doubt there are more weeks of waiting in our future, but we’ll find more little anchorages to spend the time and hopefully we’ll be soon moving again; enjoying more of this unpredictable adventure that we began seven years ago!

Update:

We’re now anchored in Boca Chica, where we have cell service and can find out what’s what in the world.  We were welcomed into the bay by a school of dolphins.  We’re sending lots of love to family and friends, wishing you all a happy lock down!  

Time Flies!

Oh my gosh, it’s December!!  The old adage of “time flies when you’re having fun” has proven true once again.  I feel like I’ve plummeted off the blog wagon and tripped over my time machine while waving my hands in the air shouting WEEEEEeeee!!!  I’ve left far too many adventures flapping in the wind, so it’s time to catch up.  Be prepared for information overload as I try to regale you with some of our most memorable escapades from the past six months.

When I last reported, we’d been enjoying a sojourn in Seattle soaking up some summer sunshine while I was recuperating from knee surgery.  At the end of the summer, with a most important due date approaching, it was finally time to go meet the newest member of our tribe.  We zipped down I-5 to San Luis Obispo in order to be there for William James Maxhimer’s grand arrival on September 8th!

Smitten, totally smitten.  I know every grandparent has experienced this, but for us it was new and unexpected, this power of love and attachment that suddenly takes over when you hold that little bundle of warmth for the first time.  William is perfect in every way and we had three weeks of holding, cuddling, and being amazed, along with his beautiful parents, Kyle and Rachael.  I’ll try to keep my adoration to an acceptable level but suffice it to say that we are in heaven.

Much too soon it was time to move on down the road and let the rest of the family enjoy some William time, so we packed our bags and gave William one last snuggle.  We traveled in the Murph for 6 weeks, visiting new places and once again being amazed at the wealth of beauty and extremes to be found in our National Parks.  Starting 282′ below sea level in Death Valley and wandering above 10,000′ in mountain peaks looking over vast canyons; how lucky are we?

We loved hiking through the forests in Sequoia and Kings Canyon, craning our necks to peer into the top branches of trees that have been standing for thousands of years.  We clambered in and around hoodoos and piles of colored rocks in Zion and Bryce, down into slot canyons in Antelope Valley and along ancient riverbeds in Utah.  Sometimes it felt as if we landed on another planet created by Dr. Seuss!

One day we drove to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon with the anticipation building as we wound in and out of golden aspen forests and open meadows, climbing higher and higher until finally we walked to the edge…of wow.  There are times when Mother Earth takes our breath away, when you simply have to stop, listen, and see.

We found many places that we want to explore more, but since the weather had turned very cold, we decided it was time to put the Murph away for the winter and we had some work to do (I know, that’s an unfamiliar concept to these nomads).

Brrrr!

We needed to go visit Happy Dance and get her ready to float next spring.  We flew to Panama City and drove to San Carlos where we’d planned to stay for two weeks while working on the boat.  Well, we learned that there’s a reason we’ve always had the bottom painted by others…it’s hard work!  We muddled through, and only cried uncle when nearly done with the worst of it.  Bottom sanded, paint applied and only 5 days gone by, hmmm it seems that maybe time flies when NOT having fun too!

Since we had finished our chores early we still had a few weeks to fill before our accommodations were available for Christmas, so says we; why not hop on a plane, fly to Italy, explore for a bit, then hop on a ship to bring us back?  Good plan!  We flew to Milan, took a train to Florence and enjoyed 5 wonderful days there before heading to Rome for another 4 days.

Italy – the history, the art, the architecture, the food, the people, the language, all are magical.  The Agony and the Ecstasy was a book that I loved when I was in high school and I’ve always wanted to visit Michelangelo’s hometown, and Bernini’s Duomo.  I can tell you without a doubt that it didn’t disappoint!  We spent hours wandering through narrow streets enjoying a gelato here and a glass of chianti there, sitting in outdoor cafes, and climbing 100’s of stairs to the top of the Duomo and Bell Tower.  Warm people, and a rich and inviting culture.  We loved it.

While Florence felt like a small town, Rome seemed huge!  Our AirBnB was in Trastevere, which turned out to be a great central location, with lots of cute plazas, restaurants, and outdoor markets.  We walked everywhere and it was a great way to explore the city and find hidden little side streets.  Everywhere you look in Rome there’s another church or Roman column, or a trattoria with inviting aromas enticing you to sit for a spell!  We did all the big-name attractions, and because it was off season, we had them pretty much all to ourselves.  Another wonderful visit!

Pretty soon our Italian sojourn was winding down, and it was time to hop a train to the historic port town of Civitavecchia, where we boarded the Pacific Princess for a 5,500 nm, 17-day cruise back to the US.  Along the way we visited Naples, Pompeii, Sicily, Gibraltar, Cadiz, and Tenerife.  New places, new foods, new cultures, new friends…new fun!

So now we’re steaming along in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, with another 2,000 miles to go before we land in Florida.  Our ship is a relatively small one holding only 622 passengers, and the rocking and rolling of the boat is something we didn’t really expect.  It’s a riot to watch everyone stagger drunkenly down the hallways as the boat rides up and down the swells.  Sitting on our balcony 7 stories above the water, we keep trying to visualize what it would feel like to be on Happy Dance with sails out riding the wind and dancing on the waves.  It’s gorgeous, and we’ve experienced the world as a 360-horizon line before, but I have to say that being on Happy Dance in that vast circle of water is a bit different than being on a ship steaming along at 20 knots!

Breakfast at sea

In another few days we’ll land in Florida, hop on a few flights to San Luis Obispo (SLO), and see our wee William and family.  Time is on the wing again, and yet we continue to capture moments that will last forever.  I’ll always be able to feel the warm breeze on the Atlantic, watch the moonset in front of us, and feel the excitement of what comes next.  Yep, time flies, and we’re making more memories!

PS….We made it to SLO after two days of packed airports and bumpy flights, tired but happy.  Christmas has come and gone and our first Christmas with kids and grandson William was THE BEST!  This grand-parenting stuff is awesome.  Now if only I could make time stand still!

Chasing Sunsets

It’s dark, and though the stars are getting brighter, they’re losing the battle to the silver moon that is now shining over Happy Dance.  A gentle wind is blowing from the north and I’m standing on the bow, letting the breeze cool me, listening to the birds, and smelling the plumeria blossoms on shore.  I’m picturing a map in my mind, trying to reconcile where we are with where we’ve been, and with the distance traveled from that arbitrary place we once called home.

2018-2019 Travels of Happy Dance and crew

Six years ago, we untied Happy Dance from the dock in Anacortes and motored out of the marina to begin an adventure that neither of us clearly envisioned. How little we grasped of the things we’d see, the places we’d visit, the people we’d meet, and the fears we’d face.  We chuckle now at the funny things we did while learning to live on a sailboat, and we cringe at the scary things we did that we survived.

So here we are in Panama, in the Pearl Islands, latitude 07 degrees, longitude 79 degrees, with over 15,000 miles under the keel from the glaciers in Alaska!  Who’d a thunk it.  All the miles, the smiles, the oohs and ahhs, the pinch me moments, the oh shit moments, and the bazillion memories in between.  What a ride!

In honor of our sixth anniversary of cruising, I thought this blog would be about reminiscing over some of our more memorable moments.  But when I asked Marty to name his top three moments since leaving the dock he started writing, and writing, and writing, and finally stopped after he’d listed a page full, saying “I can’t!”.  I have to agree though, it’s impossible to decide the best of the best of all the magical moments we’ve shared.   So, I’ll scrap that blog, or save it for another major milestone and move on to something that’s been in our minds this year…

Decisions…

This season has been tough. The distance from family and friends felt farther even though we’re usually just a plane ride away.  At one point we needed for Marty to get home quickly to see his Dad who was ailing.  Weather, logistics, and immigration paperwork all played against us as we frantically worked to get Marty on a plane out of Playas de Coco, Costa Rica.  It didn’t help that it was during the Christmas holidays and offices were on short hours, or that the winds were blowing 40 knots in the anchorage and yet we were forced to keep Happy Dance in the harbor until papers were completed.  Marty was finally able to fly out, and I stayed on Happy Dance at anchor.  Thankfully Marty was able to see his Dad before he passed away on Christmas Day.

In addition to the family sadness, we’ve had a few sailing trials as well.  Our last passage around Punta Mala to Las Perlas was essentially the final straw in what has become the year of the broken-backed camel.  On the Happy Dance Beaufort Duck Scale, it was a five-ducks-down-100-mile-trek against contrary currents, tide rips that spread out for miles, wind against the current stirring up steep waves, all while playing dodge-a-freighter in the dark.  We were traveling at less than 4 knots, and sometimes painfully slowed to 2 and 3 knots by the ferocious current running out of the Gulf of Panama.  We actually considered diving on the prop to see if we’d caught a fishing net or something!  Happy Dance was not happy!  The slow speed was annoying but bearable, except for the fact that Happy Dance was guzzling fuel like a motorboat.  Then at sunset, the winds kicked in.  We unfurled the mainsail, but soon had to reef and finally furled it all the way back in because the conditions were just too rough.  With Happy Dance nearly dipping her gunwales in the water with every roll, we tried and tried to no avail to find an easier heading to find some relief from the gusty wind and opposing current.

Then we arrived at the edge of the busy shipping lanes leading into the Panama Canal.  When you’re only going 3 knots over ground, and the freighters are moving at about 20 knots, it’s best to stay out of their way.  Unfortunately for us, that meant trying to get across the southbound lane into the separation zone in time to avoid the freighter bearing down on us, and give the freighter heading northbound some room to pass us.  Judging speed, bearing, and distance is a crazy game when the Closest Point of Approach (CPA) on radar is changing from 500 feet to 2 miles with every roll of the boat because your GPS is 55’ off the water.

So, long story short, we survived another passage from hell.  I have this one listed in second place after the true passage from hell, but Marty thought it might be down further on the list.  Either way, we’d just as soon not repeat the experience any time soon!

Once dawn arrived, we could see the islands, the current finally released us from its grasp, and a pod of dolphins escorted us the last few miles.  Happy Dance picked up speed and started behaving normally again, and we were soon approaching shore, watching the depth sounder waiting for a spot to anchor.  Too tired even for an anchor beer, we took a look at our beautiful new surroundings, then hit the sack.  Nap time.

Now…back to that gentle wind blowing, standing on the bow, letting the breeze cool me, listening to the colorful birds call to each other on shore.  There were many days of simply watching; gazillions of sea birds diving, fish kerfluffles, beaches appearing and disappearing in the 18’ tides.  Walks on the beaches, paddles along the reefs, swimming and floating, happy hours on the sand.  Yeah, it was nice.

We seem to be feeling a bit ambivalent about being in Panama after having spent nearly two years in getting here.   I think we’re spoiled by places we’ve been and loved more, and that didn’t require getting the poopie knocked out of us on a regular basis!  El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama are all beautiful countries, with different personalities, different traditions, and different people.  We appreciated them all, we’ve been awed by the history and the beauty, we’ve been amazed at the flora and fauna.  There are still so many places to explore that I know we’ll be back, however, the trip south (and lots of east) from El Salvador was much tougher than expected.  The infamous Papagayo winds, the marginal road stead anchorages, the days and days of dancing on anchor in 40-50 knots, the high cost of living, and the added difficulty in getting simple conveniences, like tacos…I miss tacos.  And tamales. And mole, margaritas, and molcajete.

Decision made!

We’re returning to the land of tacos and tamales.  To the land where Spanish music spills out from every doorway and the mouthwatering smells from the roticeria will make your tummy rumble.  There are many whys and wherefores for this decision, and in our wee brains we probably have a list of reasons stored somewhere, but mostly it’s about feeling relaxed, feeling safe, and feeling happy.  Rather than wonder why we’re not feeling those things here in this particular slice of paradise, we’re more focused on the reasons we felt those emotions in Mexico.

The Gulf of California is magical, and it’s our kind of magic.  When we return to Happy Dance next season, we’ll be making the big U-turn and heading north.  Not in the sense of going backwards, but in the sense of going home.  We’re glad to have seen and experienced Central America, and now it’s time to return to the places that we have enjoyed the most.

Our life is an escapade and we are happy to be living it to the fullest.  We set out six years ago not knowing what adventures were in store for us, and we’ve had more incredible encounters than we can list.  Our lives are measured in moments, in glances and a smile, in a hug on a bumpy sea, a toast to a conch shell sunset, watching for the green flash, a Norah Jones serenade.  We’ll continue to chase sunsets, no matter which direction they lead us, and we’ll always be together in that space and time we call home.

Sunset Isla Parida, Panama

 

Full Circle

Seven years ago, we landed in San Jose, Costa Rica to begin what has become a nonstop adventure, a permanent picnic, an excellent escapade!   We called it G.R.E.A.T. (Grand Retirement Escapade and Tour) and it certainly has been quite a ride!

This past week as we sailed by Tambor, Costa Rica, in the Gulf of Nicoya, we passed by the hotel where we’d spent a week on the beginning of our month in Costa Rica and Panama in 2011-2012.  It was kind of surreal to be sailing by in our home afloat looking at the beach where we’d watched the ocean through the palms from our beach side resort back then.  Happy Dance was a dream unrealized, and we’d yet to even decide on a life at sea.  It seems like so long ago and measured in miles traveled and the gazillion or so adventures we’ve shared since then, I guess it was!

We arrived in Playas del Coco just before Christmas after leaving the ferocious winds of San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua.  We had planned on spending some time in the reportedly beautiful anchorage of Santa Elena, but with the Papagayos forecast to ramp up, and some sad news coming from home, we decided the best decision was to use the one calm day we had to make our escape from windy Nicaragua to a town where we’d have access to an airport, namely Playas del Coco.

Being at sea during times of family emergencies makes us realize how isolated we sometimes are.  We’d received word before leaving San Juan del Sur that Marty’s Dad, lovingly called “Grumpy”, was in the hospital.  With little information reaching us from home it was tough to know what to do.  We weren’t able to put Happy Dance in a marina because we weren’t checked into Costa Rica yet, so anchoring out in Playas del Coco in 30+ knot winds was our only option while we tried to determine how to get Marty home.

We spent a very frustrating day wandering around town and waiting for officials so that we could get all the correct stamps and pieces of paper to make us legal and to allow Marty to be able to leave the country without being tossed in jail.  Walking between the Port Captain, a closed Immigration office, the Port Captain, and a still closed Immigration office, made us a bit crazy, not to mention, HOT.  Thankfully, the friendly ladies at the Port Captain’s office helped us by calling Immigration in Liberia to find out when the local office would be open and ultimately got us an appointment later that night for us to meet with them.  Once that was done we had the problem of how to get back to the boat in the dark since the water taxis don’t run after dark!  Another friendly local took pity on us and called his buddy and voila, a ride home to Happy Dance.  The next day Marty had an appointment with the Customs officials at the airport, where IF he got the right stamps for Happy Dance, he’d then be able to board a plane to the states.  Again, the friendly people of Costa Rica helped us out and Marty was able to fly to Texas.

His time in Texas was tough, to put it lightly, arriving to find Grumpy in the hospital with little time left.  After a life full of love and family, his 90 year old body was winding down.  We’re so thankful that Marty was able to be there with his brothers, to hold his Dad’s hand and have a chance to talk with him in those final days.  Grumpy passed away in his sleep on Christmas morning with his family around him, knowing he was loved.

Marty flew home to Happy Dance a few days later.  I was ecstatic to have him home but I’m sure he felt a bit numb after a week of hospitals and sadness, to come back to Playas del Coco, a busy little gringo town with lots of sunshine, and festive music.  So we left the dusty streets and noisy nightlife to head a bit north to Playa Iguanita.  We spent a quiet New Year’s Eve anchored there, listening to howler monkeys and birds, and the waves on shore.  It was a nice spot to begin 2019, to reflect on how lucky we are, and to bid a final farewell to Grumpy.

Our next stop was the perfect little anchorage of Playa Guacamaya.  It felt like we were finally back to enjoying the cruising life; floating over clear water in a protected anchorage where we snorkeled, swam, walked the empty beach, and sat in the cockpit enjoying the view.  Perfect.

After a few days enjoying the peaceful anchorage, the wind changed, making it time to head further south.  We stopped just a few miles away in Playa Conchal.  Billed as one of Costa Rica’s most beautiful bays we had planned to stay a few days to walk the long sandy beaches, however on the way into the anchorage Marty was on the bow and he kept pointing to something in the water for me to see.  (warning for Megret and Julie K, picture of snake below!)

We saw dozens of snakes slithering along the surface as we made our way to the anchorage, and there were quite a few around the boat after we dropped the hook.  Since we had internet, we googled to see what they were; yellow bellied sea snakes, highly venomous, for which there is no antidote.  Yikes; the pool is now closed!  Supposedly they don’t bite since they have small mouths, but it just didn’t sound like a fun time to be swimming with poisonous snakes.  Needless to say, we left the next morning!

Our next trek took us around Cabo Velas where we started heading in a more southeasterly direction.  We’re continually surprised at how far east we’ve actually come since leaving Alaska.  Our current longitude is 84 degrees West, nearly due south of Atlanta!

Full Circle!

The 50-mile trip from Playa Conchal to Bahia Samara was another typical travel day on this blustery coast; full of sail changes, getting slammed with too much sail out, becalmed after reefing, and finally motoring into a headwind over choppy seas.  We finally arrived in Bahia Samara and skirted the huge reef in the middle of the bay to anchor behind a tiny island called Isla Chora that provided a bit of relief from the incoming southern swell off the ocean.

Our days in Bahia Samara were full of swimming (no snakes), snorkeling, paddling, exploring the tide pools on the island, and listening to the waves crashing over the reef.  We hitched a ride to shore with Wildest Dreams and got completely lost trying to find the town because we thought that we were anchored right in front of it.  Nope!  We walked in circles for a bit getting strange looks when we asked locals where Samara was, but finally discovered that a taxi ride was in order since town was a 40-minute walk along a narrow busy road.  We finally arrived at the far end of the bay where the actual town of Samara was, perused the touristy shops, checked out the market, and of course found a beach side restaurant for lunch!  Ahh, the life of the cruiser…sometimes all who wander ARE lost..ha!

Leaving Samara for Bahia Ballena was another 50 mile jaunt, and again we spent our day hoisting and dousing sails, flying at 8 knots on a perfect broad reach, and becalmed on a lumpy sea.  Rounding Punta Blanco was a challenge with wind on the nose, breaking waves, and an opposing current.

Before rounding the final corner and heading into Bahia Ballena, we realized that we were passing Tambor, the site of our official starting point on the Grand Retirement Tour!  We could even see the waterfalls where we’d hiked, and swam in the tide pools.  Great memories, and fun to think of having come full circle.

When we anchored in southern end of Bahia Ballena we were next to the pier where we’d taken a panga ride to Isla Tortuga seven years ago.  Everything looked about the same, with all the pangas tied to the pier in a Med-moor mess, each with a separate anchor, but all leading to a single tie point.  We paddled to the beach to explore the little town, and visited Cristina’s restaurant, a landmark that’s been open for over 30 years in the same spot and run by its namesake.

One day the four of us dinghied up the river into a mangrove lined paradise.  After turning off the motor, we floated along listening to the roar of the howler monkeys in the distance (second loudest animal in the world!), and the birds fluttering through the trees.  There was one sound we were never able to identify that sounded like ping pong balls bouncing.  Was it the mud bubbling?  A bird calling?  Crocodiles burping?  Who knows, but it was a fun day of floating on a mirror in the midst of green.

When the winds changed, we headed to the north end of the bay and anchored in front of Playa de Muertos, where we were told the name was given because of a school of dolphins that beached themselves there.  It’s a rather sad name for a beautiful spot!  We loved the palms on the beach, the reef protecting us from the swell, the parrots squawking in the trees, and the quiet nights.  Perfect.

So, we’re now sitting on Happy Dance as she rests in the mud while tied to a dock in Puerto Azul Marina.  We were assured by the marina that we’d have enough water for our 6’8” keel, but I don’t think they took the full moon (and lovely lunar eclipse!!) into account.  At the moment the tide is a negative 1.25′, and Happy Dance is a couple of feet out of the water, stuck in the nasty mud of the estuary.  UGH.  It’s especially strange since the bottom isn’t flat so our bow is higher than the stern.  Why are we here you might ask?  We’re leaving Happy Dance on her own for a couple of weeks while we go inland to explore the mountains in Costa Rica, then we’ll hop a flight to Seattle to go celebrate Brad and Jesse’s wedding!  Exciting times!

So, there you have it blog readers, you’re all caught up on the circuitous travels, life changes, and exciting escapades of the Happy Dancers.  A circle of thousands of miles and a gazillion adventures, and always more to come.  As they say in Costa Rica, Pura Vida!!